The battle of the blondes

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 24, 2003

By Suzanne Fields, Tribune Media Services

Jessica Lynch and Elizabeth Smart as portrayed on the small screen are appropriate heroines for our times (i.e., ratings month). Their stories stoop to the lowest common denominators of sensation, tawdry sentimentalism and phony innuendo, camouflaged with emotional color. We’re supposed to be uplifted and inspired.

Saying that is not to criticize either of the young women in real life, but their stories as presented on the screen tell a tale of distortion and exploitation. The exploiters are not those who lived through the story but those who massaged it, manipulated it, pushed it and produced it, and the culture that relishes “reality drama” no matter how much bunk passes for fact.

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Everyone’s sympathies go out to Jessica Lynch, who did not ask to be held hostage to hero worship and does not consider herself a heroine. She suffered grievous physical wounds. Who can blame Mohammed Odeh Al-Rehaief, the Iraqi man responsible for her rescue, for selling his story?

But the television tale does not bear his name and it was made without Jessica’s cooperation. She is merely a bit player to swell the action. It could have been called “An Iraqi to the Rescue,” but who would have cared?

Jessica, a country girl from a town called Palestine in West Virginia, joined the Army to see the world. She had the bad luck to take a wrong turn at the wrong time. She was forced to face the enemy armed only with a gun choked by sand. Is anyone making money on her story contributing any of it to the families of the soldiers who died with her, making the story possible?

In an irony of these squalid times, Jessica had to share the screen on the same night with Elizabeth Smart. Elizabeth even wanted to play herself in the television movie. What could have been better than becoming a performer in your own “autobiography”?

Contemporary fame is often more real in performance than in a life actually lived. Many young Hollywood twinklers become images of others and never have to forge characters of their own. Elizabeth Smart’s mother, as tiresome a backstage mother as there ever was, showed unexpected discretion by not allowing a tale of sexual molestation be told about her daughter. She would let Elizabeth do that later, if she chooses. And no doubt she will.

Rape is the most bankable event in our culture, more valuable than murder and a lot more valuable than mere mayhem. Jessica Lynch has no memory of being raped, doctors at the hospital insist they found no evidence at all that she ever was. But it’s in her book.

“It was the parents who felt the that the details of her condition and of the sexual assault needed to be in the book,” Rick Bragg, author of her authorized biography of Jessica Lynch, explains to Time magazine. The parents calculated that the book would be “incomplete” without it. They were probably right.

Fame may last for only 15 minutes, in Andy Warhol’s famous calculation, but it arrives quickly and requires instant attention lest it vanish before it can be fully exploited. The stories of these two women were written quickly, following soon after the two homecomings.

Fame even has its analysts and historians. Leo Braudy writes in “The Frenzy of Renown” that society is “so suffused with images, the tricks and gestures of the surface have become easily detachable from whatever substance they once signified.” Rape, as Gertrude Stein would no doubt have told us, is a rape is a rape.

It makes little difference why we’re famous. Details that once would have been considered an intrusion on privacy are aggressively made public now so they can be turned into a major motion picture. The gradations of privacy that were once controlled by the moral prescriptions of humility, self-respect and personal peace have been flattened to an all-inclusive bravado. One size fits all.

The television critics reduced the portraits of Jessica and Elizabeth to the “battle of the blondes.” Hollywood once airbrushed blemishes and hushed up details, particularly sexual details. Children were especially sheltered from public exposure. Now heroines are presented with warts and all. If the bankable blemishes aren’t really there, they’ll paint them in. Humiliation is a badge of honor. Suffering isn’t real unless everybody knows about it.

This does not inspire pity and fear so much as expose the greed and envy that invariably accompanies fame. The producers of the Jessica Lynch and Elizabeth Smart stories aren’t sure of the size of the jackpot, but they’re confident that they’ve hit it.

(Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist. E-mail her at